Crowds & Power

When I’ve described the Junta to people more than a few times someone has remarked, “Oh, like a book club”. I always say, “Well, sorta” before clarifying that we are really more of a mock think-tank that has aspirations to topple governments (always important for me to find a way to say that we take ourselves seriously, but not too seriously….).

But we’ve settled on the idea of talking about a book for an upcoming Junta. Or, more specifically, using a book as a jumping off point for a discussion. That book is Crowds and Power, the landmark sociological work by Nobel Laureate, Elias Canetti.

Several of us have gotten started reading it and we’re hoping that more than a few others do so as well. It’s a long book, and somewhat dense, not a particularly easy read. But it’s rewarding and unconventional and it relates to current events and how we live today.

An early section entitled Destructiveness had me thinking about the sexual assault by an Egyptian crowd on the journalist Laura Logan.  Even in the case of the recent revolution in Egypt, which has been generally seen as a triumph for human rights and more liberal values, the ugliness of human nature can come through because the sense of outrage that so often animates a crowd is at its core destructive and not constructive. It seeks to find a target to realize its anger. In a crowd in Cairo that was not yet having its grievances heard by the government, Lara Logan—blond, beautiful and Western—was apparently a choice target for these humiliated men to unleash their anger. As Paul Theroux put it last weekend, “I smile at the phrase ‘peaceful mob’ as an oxymoron”. This essay “Why we travel” takes us through why some seek out these places where a mosaic of people form an idea overcoming what Theroux called “the narcissism of minor differences”.

Not all of the destructiveness of crowds is bad. Canetti writes of how important the “destruction of representational images is”, how it is “the destruction of hierarchy that is no longer recognized”. That section had me thinking about the Iraqi crowds pulling down the statue of Saddam on Fyodor square or the mangled images of Arab autocrats being swept into the dust-bins of history by Arab crowds today. The line “a crowd exists so long as it has an unattained goal” makes me optimistic about those crowds in places like Syria, Bahrain or Iran, where the government has been ruthless in suppressing what the people want.

Crowds and Power was published in 1960 and I wonder what Canetti would think of our streets thick with people yapping on cell phones or listening to music. A few days ago I stumbled on this story on Slate about how the ipod has changed our lives. We don’t even think about it anymore but it’s curious to consider how we are all alone together on these streets and observe the number of people on the street, subways and buses with headphones on and what that means to the society around us. Are we less engaged as a crowd, as a society? Or are we just a different type of crowd (this is what I’m guessing Canetti would say)? Are we less social and kindly towards each other in crowded urban spaces? Or does the soothing sounds of our favorite music make us more tolerant of the fellow subway rider invading our space?

The Slate article I thought was also noteworthy for pointing out how the collective unconscious of our society can manifest itself in a crowd.  The author pointed to the roots of second-wave feminism taking form in Beatlemania. It made me think about a scene in the Richard Linklater movie Waking Life (an amazing movie, both visually and philosophically) when Ethan Hawke and Julie Delphy talk about crossword puzzles. Ethan Hawke’s character says there was a study where groups of people were given crosswords puzzles that were brand new and ones that had been in newspapers a few days before. The group always solved the older crossword puzzles first, as if “the answers were just out there”. It makes me also think about being sixteen and Nirvana breaking big. It was just rock music, fairly simple chords, but something in Kurt’s voice and those songs captured what so many people were feeling, some kind of zeitgeist. There is something we experience collectively as a society that we don’t know much about, but crowds are a part of it.

Let’s talk about crowds, and our collective aspirations as a society, what binds us, what holds us back, the positive and negative aspects of what happens when we get together in groups. We’ll be a group soon talking about that and I wonder what sort of characteristics we will have? Opinionated, argumentative, convivial, perhaps? I’m not sure if we’ll be burning any effigies or over-turning existing hierarchies, but we’ll see how the drinks flow and what needs toppling that particular day.

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